Working as a reporter in the oil patch is great fun. I meet all kinds of people: Knife sellers, hamburger slingers and roughnecks. You’ve probably heard some of those stories here on the radio.
But there’s another way to tell a story. It’s with numbers. For a few weeks now, I’ve been asking bureaucrats in Bismarck to illustrate how life has changed in oil country.
Here are some highlights:
• Did you know the average oil worker in Williams County — which includes Williston — makes about $99,000 a year? That same North Dakota Job Services report showed that the average wage for all workers in Williams County —— is $77,000 a year.
Those high salaries are attracting people to the oil patch.
• For years, the fastest growing cities in America have been in the south. Places like The Villages, a retirement community in Florida.
JINGLE: “The Villages. America’s Friendliest Hometown!”
The Villages is growing fast. Its population jumped 4 percent last year. But it’s no match for Williston. Williston grew at a rate of 8.8 percent last year, that’s about twice as fast as the Villages. And Williston doesn’t even have a jingle.
• While most of those newcomers are adults, some are children. Public school enrollment in the oil patch is on the rise. In September 2007, fewer than 370 students were enrolled in the Stanley Public Schools. Four years later, that number had increased 66 percent to 552 students.
• Roads are increasingly crowded too. I’ve driven thousands of miles in the oil patch. And I’ve seen — and been intimidated by — lots of big trucks. But even I was surprised to learn just how many permits the states has issued for oversize trucks in the first five months of this year. Ready? 45,000. And that’s just for the first five months of 2012.
Most of those permits were issued in four of the biggest oil producing counties: Williams, Dunn, Mountrail and McKenzie counties.
• Trucks aren’t the only form of transportation on the rise. The number of people boarding planes and trains in the oil patch has taken off faster than a 747.
In the space of a single year — from 2010 to 2011 — the number of people jumping on planes in Minot increased by almost 60,000 people. That growth was so explosive that Minot shot past Grand Forks to become the third busiest airport in the state.
2012 is on track to be even busier in Minot. And that’s undoubtedly tied to the city’s proximity to the Bakken. Boardings are up 68 percent in the first five months of the year.
More people are also riding Amtrak trains in the oil patch. In Williston and Stanley, ridership is on track to double at those stops in 2012.
• At night, the orange glow of natural gas flares are a common sight in the oil patch. It’s also a big reason why pollution from such flares increased 4.5 percent last year. The World Bank cites North Dakota oil production as the main reason for the increase.
There are other downsides to the boom too.
• Oil companies don’t just pump black gold. Sometimes they spill it. During a recent 20-month period, 720,000 gallons of oil leaked out of pipes and trucks in North Dakota. That much oil would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool – and then some.
Pro Publica, an investigative journalism website, uncovered that data. Pro Publica also found that companies spilled more than 1.7 million gallons of fracking wastewater during that same 20-month period.
The biggest offenders were Continental Resources and Whiting Oil and Gas. Each spilled more than 100,000 gallons of oil during the 20-month period. The biggest fracking wastewater spillers? Whiting and Encore Operating.
— Todd Melby
Photo by Ben Garvin